OLYMPIA — Washington state Democrats are fulfilling some of the hefty aspirations of the Green New Deal with their own climate-change package, one that would raise the cost of producing, processing and transporting farm goods while promising the “equitable distribution of benefits.”
To do that, the Democrat-dominated Legislature is considering bills to tax carbon, cap greenhouse gases, make all electricity renewable, mandate more biofuels in gasoline and diesel, and govern by “environmental justice.”
The Green New Deal, a resolution introduced in Congress last month by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., outlines a “10-year national mobilization” to make the U.S. entirely powered by zero-emission energy sources.
Like the Washington, D.C., version, the Washington state agenda has the twin goals of banishing fossil fuels and funding a bigger government to provide relief to as-yet undefined “highly impacted communities.”
Democrats and climate-change activists say action is overdue on both fronts because global temperatures and sea levels are rising and the poor are least able to adapt. Carbon dioxide levels are higher now than at any point in at least 800,000 years, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
By itself, Washington state’s effect on the climate would be at most infinitesimal, Washington State Climatologist Nick Bond said.
“Simply from a total carbon emissions point of view, Washington is tiny compared to the world at large,” he said.
Based on state, national and international estimates, Washington contributes less than 0.25% of the world’s greenhouse gases.
Still, Bond said he sees a practical side to the state leading on climate change: It could teach other states something about implementing policies.
“It’s not simply symbolic,” Bond said. “You have to learn how to do it.”
Gov. Jay Inslee has made climate change his signature issue. In his seventh year in office, he finally has a Legislature to match.
Democrats expanded their House and Senate majorities in the November elections. The party can pass major climate-change legislation without any Republican votes or even unanimous support from Democratic legislators.
Inslee rolled out his climate-change agenda in December and said it was motivated by “love.” At the same press conference, Senate Environment, Energy and Technology Committee Chairman Reuven Carlyle said he would take the agenda and transform it into legislation.
“The reason we’re going to be successful is the inside Olympia work,” he said. “The hard work of committees and amendments and legislation.”
With less than a month left in the 2019 session, the major climate-change bills are still works in progress. The outlines are clear, though, and the lines are drawn. Democrats have rejected proposals by Republicans to submit some of the major bills to statewide votes.
Farm groups and Republicans, especially from agricultural districts, are among the severest critics, even though Democrats say agriculture should welcome legislation in response to the droughts and wildfires that have afflicted the state.
In a floor speech, Senate Minority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said mandating carbon-free power will hurt farmers.
“We act like this is a boon to agriculture. Well, I hope you don’t need any significant amounts of electricity to run your irrigation pumps, heat your buildings, process your crops because it’s going to get a lot more expensive,” he said.
Democrats discount claims that rates will soar and point out that the bill requires utilities to help low-income customers pay energy bills.
The bill also has a cost-containment provision. If a utility’s rates rise by an average of 2% a year over eight years, the act could be suspended, according to the bill’s current version.
Democrats rejected Republican amendments in the Senate to require annual rate studies on the law’s effect and to suspend the act if Washington’s average rates were no longer among the five lowest in the country.
Although the Trump administration has withdrawn the U.S. from the Paris climate agreement, Democrats are pushing for Washington state to meet the accord’s goals. That would mean reducing the state’s total greenhouse gas emissions — mainly carbon dioxide — by 81.5% by 2050.
If all the greenhouse gases emitted in Washington by cars, trucks, ships, boats, jetliners, cement plants, aluminum smelters, semiconductor manufacturers, coal- and natural gas-fired power plants and cows went away today, the state would still be emitting too much carbon to meet the Paris goal.
“It’s more a feel-good issue for Washington than a substantive issue,” Washington Farm Bureau director of government affairs Tom Davis said.
Manure, fertilizer use and livestock digestive processes account for about 7% of Washington’s greenhouse gases, according to the state Department of Ecology. Carbon emissions from farm equipment are lumped in with greenhouse gases from other industrial and commercial activities.
No major climate-change bill singles out agriculture, but the Farm Bureau says the mandates will raise electric rates and transportation costs.
“If you increase the cost of our inputs to our farmers, our farms cannot remain economically viable, and so for us, that’s the bottom line,” Davis said. “For a farmer, a pickup truck is their number one viable option. They can’t exist taking a city bus. They can’t exist driving a Prius across their farm.”
While Carlyle and other Democrats work in Olympia, Inslee has launched a run for the White House.
“Folks are mobilizing across the country for a green new deal. This is our moment,” Inslee said, kicking off his campaign with a rally at a Seattle company that manufactures solar panels.
Inslee highlighted the dual agenda — climate change and social justice. “We know climate change is as much a matter of equity as it is a matter of ecology,” he said.
During Inslee’s tenure, Washington state’s release of greenhouse gases has increased. Total carbon emissions rose by 6.1% percent between 2012 and 2015, according to a Department of Ecology inventory finished in December. A calculation of 2016 emissions is due in December 2020.
The increase between 2012 and 2015 coincided with relatively strong economic growth, but went against goals the Legislature set in 2008 to slash greenhouse gases.
The Great Recession, which began in 2008, had helped diminish carbon output, as greenhouse gases slumped from a peak of 108.6 million metric tons in 2000 to 91.8 million in 2012.
As the economy recovered, however, greenhouse gas emissions rose to 97.4 million metric tons in 2015, according to Ecology.
Paris-level emissions would be 18 million metric tons in 2050.
To help get there, Carlyle has proposed cap-and-trade, which requires manufacturers, electric utilities, natural gas companies and fuel distributors to ramp down greenhouse gases or bid for “allowances.” California and British Columbia also have cap-and-trade, and Oregon’s Legislature is considering it.
Because the cap applies to fuel distributors, cap-and-trade affects the price of gasoline. In California, legislative analysts have projected that cap-and-trade will increase gas prices by 15 cents a gallon by 2021 and by 24 cents a gallon by 2031.
The Washington auctions would raise $1.23 billion in their first two years and $1.55 billion the following two years, the state estimates. The money would go into three accounts — labeled “energy transformation,” “energy transition” and “climate impacts resilience.”
The policy, included in Senate Bill 5981, got its first hearing March 21 in Carlyle’s committee.
A summary of the bill is lengthy, and complicated. Here is a representative sentence: “Ecology must adopt rules for holding auctions that are separate from the quarterly auctions, for allowances from the reserve when the settlement prices in the preceding auction approaches the adopted ceiling price.”
After a committee staff member went over the summary, Sen. Phil Fortunato, R-Auburn, had a question: “Would the average person be able to read this and understand what you just said?”
There was laughter, but no answer.
“The problem with cap-and-trade is that fundamentally it’s a complicated and political system that can be gamed,” said Todd Myers, environmental policy analyst for the conservative Washington Policy Center. “The people who benefit have lobbyists and lawyers.”
Implementing the energy transformation account will require seven new programs and the energy transition account will require six, according to the Department of Commerce, which estimates it will spend $2.5 million starting up cap-and-trade the first year. Ecology projects spending $5.4 million the first year.
State agencies would write plans to spend auction proceeds, giving “substantial weight” to recommendations from a new Environmental and Economic Justice Panel.
The panel would be co-chaired by a Native American tribal member and a representative of the “interests of highly impacted communities.”
Government agencies, tribes, nonprofits and businesses would be eligible for grants for green energy projects, and for housing, health programs, rural internet and “improved community services.”
“It’s not a climate bill, primarily. It’s a government redistribution bill,” Myers said. “It’s an ‘environmental justice committee,’ not an ‘environmental effectiveness committee.’”
At the hearing on cap-and-trade, Food Northwest director of government relations Craig Smith said the food processors his organization represents are aggressively cutting energy consumption and carbon emissions.
He said, however, that cap-and-trade combined with other climate-change legislation could drive food processors from Washington.
“We’re concerned about the multiple carbon-reduction strategies that are running through the Legislature this year and the layering effect, the unintended consequences,” he said. “We really don’t think that has been well enough researched.”
Washington’s economy depends less on fossil fuels than that of most states, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The statistical agency ranks the economies of North Dakota, Wyoming, West Virginia and Louisiana highest in “carbon intensity.”
At the other end are, in order, New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maryland, Oregon and Washington. About two-thirds of the 90 House and 11 Senate co-sponsors of the Green New Deal resolution in Congress represent those seven states.
Washington refines, but doesn’t produce, crude oil. The last coal mine closed in 2006, and the last coal-powered energy plant is set to close in 2025. Thanks to hydroelectricity, Washington has the second-lowest electric rates in the country and already gets 80% of its electricity from renewable sources.
The Washington Clean Energy Transformation Act — Senate Bill 5116 — proposes to reach 100% by 2045. It has passed the Senate and is working through the House.
Senate Democrats rejected a Republican amendment to suspend the act if Washington’s electric rates were no longer among those of the five lowest states in the country. Democrats also voted down an amendment to require utilities to tell customers the act’s effect on electric rates.
Under the bill, electric utilities would have to be “carbon neutral,” if not “carbon free,” by 2030.
To offset any electricity from fossil fuels, utilities would have to invest in “energy transformation projects” such as insulating homes, buying electric vehicles or installing electric vehicle charging stations.
Electric utilities would get tax breaks for contracting out the work to businesses that employ union workers. Women-, minority- or veteran-owned businesses would also get special consideration.
Washington voters have twice rejected a straight-forward carbon tax. The idea is again proposed in Senate Bill 5971, which would also raise many other taxes to fund transportation projects.
The carbon fee would be $15 per metric ton for emissions from transportation fuels and $10 per ton for emissions from generating electricity. The tax would add about 13 cents to a gallon of gasoline, according to estimates done on previous proposals.
The tax would not apply to diesel fuel, biodiesel fuel or fuel burned by agricultural aircraft. Energy-intensive, trade-dependent manufacturers such as food processors and fertilizer makers would also be exempt.
The bill also proposes hiking the gas tax by 6 cents a gallon, imposing a new property tax, increasing fines for traffic infractions, upping fees to license cars and trucks and raising taxes on bicycles, auto parts and rental cars.
All together, the taxes would raise $828 million the first full year they were in effect, according to the Office of Financial Management.
House Bill 1110 directs Ecology to reduce carbon emissions from vehicles. The bill has passed the House and has been endorsed by the Senate Environment, Energy and Technology Committee.
Ecology’s goal would be to reduce the “carbon intensity” of on-road transportation fuels by 10% by 2028 and 20% by 2035.
Carbon intensity measures greenhouse gases emitted by a particular type of fuel from production to combustion. Under a low-carbon fuels standard, a state’s transportation fuel supply gradually relies less on fossil fuels and more on biofuels. As the years go by, the mandate has a greater influence over pump prices.
After seven years, California’s program added 12 to 14 cents a gallon to the cost of gasoline, according to a study last year by the Oil Price Information Service. In its second year, Oregon’s program added 0.23 cent to a gallon of gasoline and 0.31 cent to a gallon of diesel in 2017.
The Seattle-based environmental group Carbon Washington proposed a carbon tax in 2016 that would have cut the sales tax to offset higher energy prices and the general inflation caused by increasing production and transportation costs of goods.
Because the policy was specific about the price of carbon, analysts could make informed estimates about the proposal’s effect on consumers and the state budget. It was a policy strength, but also a weakness. Some people didn’t like higher energy costs, while others didn’t like that government wouldn’t get more money from a carbon tax.
Carbon Washington policy chairman Greg Rock said he has accepted that carbon reductions will come about by legislation, even though it’s uncertain how they will affect energy prices.
“We have to act on climate change. We have a moral obligation,” he said. “I think Washington is in a very unique position to shape world policy and to say that’s not impactful and to not recognize that would be unfortunate.”